In Reformed churches people sing a lot, and what strikes outsiders is that they bring their own songbooks to the service. That many mothers have a stack of them to take to church every Sunday can be blamed on Calvin. God must be given praise, and those who know him do nothing more readily. God's Word demands a response, and singing is one means of response, preferably using God's own hymnbook, the Psalms. Calvin appealed to Augustine, who also thought there were no better songs than the psalms of David. For Calvin there was an existential element in them as well, because he saw many parallels between his own life and that of David. In the same way, he saw similar kinds of parallels between the Protestants in France and the Israelites in Egypt, the church militant and Israel in the desert, and scattered Protestants and Jews in the Diaspora. Such parallels were just too evident and suggestive not to invite comparisons and connections, and so the Psalms were understood with clear reference to the circumstances in which Calvin and the members of his congregation found themselves. The Psalms became songs for a pilgrim church, for believers who knew heaven to be their home country and were at home nowhere on earth. The Reformed became so attached to this collection that they sang from it in prosperity and adversity, while sailing the seas, fighting on battlefields, and while waiting on their deathbeds.
Behind this high view of singing there was a fear of at least two problems. The first was the problem of the silent congregation. As the Reformers saw it, Rome had muzzled the congregation. The priest sang in incomprehensible Latin, and if there was a choir, it took responsibility for what the congregation should actually do. Thus, Calvin wanted to do away with clergy and choirs that took the place of the congregation. If the Scriptures said that God was praised even from the mouths of infants (Ps 8:2), young and old should sing, should be taught to sing, and should be given something to sing from. In short, a songbook was needed. There was, however, a second problem as well. It was through song that errors could come into church. Songs were more memorable than sermons, and since there were many songs containing unbiblical elements, Calvin thought one should not go beyond the Scriptures. On the one hand, music could strengthen the work of the Word. When Isaiah said that he wanted to sing to God (Is 5:1), Calvin commented that teaching was readily communicated in song than in a "less lustrous" manner. On the other hand, however, because melody was like a funnel whereby wine could be poured into a barrel, poison and corruption could also quickly enter one's heart if the wrong words were set to music. Why would one run the risk of singing human interpretations when a divinely-approved, ready-made songbook could be found within the Scriptures? It is, after all, the understanding of what one is singing that constitutes the difference between a singing bird and a singing person. The heart seeks understanding, and understanding delights the heart. The heart wants to pray; music and song stimulate prayer; and so it comes full circle for Calvin. …
The widespread notion that Calvin was an enemy of the arts, and limited the role of music in church for that reason, is thus simply nonsense. When Calvin came to Geneva, no music could be heard in the churches at all, and he was the one who actually reintroduced it in the form of singing. That he promoted singing in unison rather than in harmony, and without musical accompaniment, can readily be explained and has nothing to do with a supposed hostility to the arts. For those who had fallen out of the habit of singing, it was only logical to begin again without complicated harmonies. Moreover, because the essence of song was the Word and the melody, instruments could only distract. Organ and multiple-part harmonies were left to the side because Calvin feared that the ear would receive more attention than the heart. "One needs to be very careful that the ear not pay closer attention to the melody than the mind to the spiritual meaning of the words." "What suffices are the simple and pure songs of praise that come from heart and mouth, in the normal language." Luther's preaching about the claritas scripturae became a commitment to the claritas canticorum in Calvin: God's praise must resound in the church with clarity, and harmony could distort that clarity. Furthermore, Calvin saw song and prayer as being so close that musical instruments could run the risk of distracting from that dialogue with God. Thus singing was not for human amusement, but for God's praise. If people were to sing in church only for the pleasure of listening, it would neither befit the majesty of the church nor please God. …
Calvin was just as concerned with melody as he was with text because he thought that melody ought to reflect the greatness and majesty of God. Calvin did not want to praise God using the melodies of street music, folk songs or bar tunes. A different style had to be created. It was to be a style with style, and with melodies of high quality, because the songs were directed to God for whom nothing but the best would do. One should be able to hear, even to feel, God's majesty in the notes, especially because God and his angels are present: "There is thus a big difference between the music people make for their enjoyment at home around the table, and the Psalms that are sung in church in the presence of God and his angels."
Taken from John Calvin: A Pilgrim's Life by Herman J. Selderhuis. © 2009 by Herman J. Selderhuis. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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